With the Turkish general election campaign starting in earnest, one might expect a range of issues to be treated by rival candidates and parties. A modernizing, fairly complex and ambitious nation, Turkey faces many issues, especially at this time of conflict and uncertainty in the Middle East.
And, yet, touring the country and talking to people from all walks of life, a reporter soon realizes that only one issue really matters in this election. That issue is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is a man who is not even a candidate this time round but, having dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, is suspected of plotting to stay at the helm for as long as he can get away with it.
Erdoğan is a complex and fascinating character with a balance sheet that is hard to close with either a plus or a minus figure.
On the plus side he has given Turkey 12 years of stable government, something the republic had never known before. He has also led Turkey to unprecedented economic prosperity, taming chronic inflation and ending mass unemployment that forced whole generations to emigrate. He has also acknowledged the principal grievances of the Kurdish minority and taken measures to address some of them.
Equally importantly, Erdoğan has managed to keep Turkey out of international conflict and regional military clashes. He has even succeeded in walking Turkey away from political booby traps such as Cyprus and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh.
The fact that Turkey is no longer threatened by terrorism from the ultra-left while is continuing to forge a dialogue with the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) movement could also be viewed as a plus for Erdoğan.
When compared to other nations in the neighborhood, Iran for example, Turkey under Erdoğan has been an undoubted success. It has not experienced mass executions, mass arrests of political and/or religious dissidents, and avoided a widening gap between rich and poor. While Turkey has been attracting large numbers of its exiled children back home, Iran has seen more than six million of its people, many from the educated elites, leave the country to flee Khomeinist oppression.
In 1978 per capita income in Iran was twice that of Turkey. Last year, however, the figure for Turkey stood at almost 20,000 US dollars while that of Iran hovered around 16,000 US dollars. Over the past four years, annual economic growth for Turkey has averaged at approximately 4.5 percent while Iran’s annual economic growth is in the red, standing at minus 5.6 percent. Iran only managed to narrowly avoid economic meltdown last year, recording weak economic growth of 1.5 percent.
However the minus side of Erdoğan’s balance sheet is just as impressive.
Casting himself as a “providential man” he started by destroying his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), marginalizing anyone who might have cast a shadow on his one-man show. As a result he is surrounded by yes-men who no longer dare question his judgement even when it is manifestly wrong.
Erdoğan came to power at a time when Turkey had developed an original synthesis between a religious society and a secular system of government. By trying to sap the foundations of the secular state, he has provoked an anti-religion backlash within society. At the same time he has split the religious constituency to the point that the biggest challenge to him now comes from his former religious allies led by the exiled Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
His confused approach to the role of religion in a modern society has provoked divisions that either did not exist or were kept in check, with large minorities such as the Alevites and dozens of Sufi fraternities now feeling threatened or discriminated against.
With a series of purges and the appointment of judges loyal only to himself, Erdoğan has also undermined the well-established and highly prized independence of Turkey’s judiciary, something rare in the Muslim world.
Similar purges of the police and the armed forces, often carried out in the name of preventing non-existent coup attempts, have politicized institutions designed to serve the nation, not any particular political faction.
I first met Erdoğan when he was a young Mayor of Istanbul with an agenda that, according to him, consisted of a single program: rooting out corruption. Taking us on a tour of the great city’s ancient underground canals, he was insistent that he would not get lost in the similarly maze-like corruption networks established in the great metropolis. At the time, the word AK (white) in his party’s acronym had a meaning, and he did clean up Istanbul.
More than a decade later, however, the White Party has become somewhat grey under Erdoğan’s leadership.
By Middle East standards corruption in Turkey still remains modest. Compared to neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran where corruption has become a system of government, Turkey is not yet completely affected by that gangrene. And, yet, there is no doubt that Erdoğan has presided over the emergence of a Mafia-style political and business organization that thrives in the grey economy. Right now that murky organization is preparing to make a big killing with a Pharaonic project to recast Istanbul into a global mega-polis.
In Turkey today, the question of how to separate business from politics is now perhaps more urgent than the separation of mosque and state.
Worse still, according to many Turks, Erdoğan seems to have succumbed to a particularly acute attack of hubris. He now sees himself as a mixture of Khan, Caliph and Sultan—a leader with a global destiny symbolizing a mythical history that transcends Islam, Turkish-ness and even Ottomania and traces its origins to the Hittites and other ancient nations.
Erdoğan’s hope is to win a two-third majority in the Grand National Assembly and thus be able to amend the Constitution without a referendum in order to create a presidential system in which he would enjoy more power than any Hittite Basil (King).
Many observers believe that Erdoğan’s political machine is still powerful enough to win at least a majority and maintain its hold on power. A few voices, however, suggest that the AKP could be forced into a coalition government.
We shall see. The beauty of an election is that it is always a toss-up.